Subsurface Circular Review

Eight years ago we saw the release of a flash game called Thomas was Alone. Developed by Mike Bithell, the game was further developed and released with additional content for PCs two years later, receiving positive reception. Late last year Mike Bithell released a new game under the label of a “Bithell Short” called Subsurface Circular. It is a short story which launched exclusively for Windows computers and later for iOS devices, it was also regarded as a very good game. Subsurface Circular has now been ported to Nintendo Switch, has the transition been a good one? Do I think it deserves the positive reception that it has received?

Subsurface Circular is a stand-alone story that has no relation to any of Mike Bithell’s previous games. Therefore, its story can be understood without playing any of the previous games such as Volume. The entirety of the game takes place on a train whereby you play as a detective Tek (robot) which takes on an unauthorised case from a local robot. The case is to uncover the truth behind a series of Tek disappearances. Character development is done in a very nice way. For example, during a conversation one of the robots will ask for your name, the response you give will indicate it (I called it Beta). In addition, the variety of responses you can select give your own personalised take on the story. The game has superb presentation, from its introduction video, to its conclusion, it is incredibly polished and looks and feels like a AAA game as well as its production values. Moreover, the mysterious nature of the story is refreshing and opens up the further you progress, it is a story that you should go into blind. Therefore, to avoid spoilers I will not say much more about it, however, it is truly a fascinating story to discover and one that is very memorable.

Each chapter consists of travelling on a train, upon each station new robots may take a seat or leave the train. Once you have exhausted all the conversations between each Tek the chapter will usually end and new Teks will take a seat near you. I liked the length of each chapter, they were neither too short nor too long. This encouraged me to play a chapter each time I started playing the game again, thus there was a nice pace to how the story progressed. Subsurface Circular has a perfect balance of serious/comical vibes to the story which you will discover when talking to the different Teks. Despite being robots, each character has their own exciting personalities to discover which prevents repetition from the dialogue and responses. I found it very fun wondering what kind of conversations were going to take place between Beta and each new passenger. In relation to gameplay, don’t expect much though. Subsurface Circular is a text-based adventure game where you select whom you want to speak to from a seat on a train. Conversations involve multiple choices, though they will not affect the main story in any way. During these conversations you will gain Focus Points which can be used to continue conversations in different ways. You will need to change Focus Points in order to complete objectives that appear as you progress as well as for when you will encounter a few puzzles.

Considering this game is text-based, I was surprised at how decent the puzzles were and it can be tricky to know what the game wants you to do to progress. Thankfully, there is a hint system in place for those with no patience in puzzles and just want to experience the story. It provides hints that will help you to progress through these puzzles quicker, if you get stuck on one. I liked that the game did not penalise you for using the hint system which removes frustration, though I still found some puzzles a bit vague even after the hint.

In relation to the Switch port, I was immediately introduced to HD rumble upon completion of the first loading, this loading being fairly slow (thankfully there is only one to deal with). The HD rumble is very well implemented and is a perfect example to demonstrate the potential of the Switch’s rumble feature. The feature is nonintrusive and feels natural in reflection to the game’s atmosphere. For example, when linking and communicating with another Tek, the controller will subtly vibrate in relation to the noises present in the game. Additionally, considering the game takes place on a train, rumbling occurs in relation to the movement of the train and as it speeds past objects outside. As a result, HD rumble makes it feel like you are actually in the train with these Tek passengers and is incredibly immersive, just like the rest of the game. Furthermore, gyroscope controls are also included. These are hardly noticeable whereby moving the Joy-Cons slightly alters the camera. I did notice that the Switch version does not include the map during gameplay in comparison to the PC version which does. If you wish to view the map, you simply need to press the select button. This was probably due to the size of the Switch screen and that the developers most likely didn’t want to cram the screen with information. Furthermore, you hardly need to use the map, therefore this isn’t so much of an issue.

The graphics have a very nice art style which translates well on the Switch. I thought that the graphics were pretty impressive, though it does have similar vibes to some mobile games that I have played. Animations and lighting is good, and Teks and the objects are quite detailed. Furthermore, the Teks are varied in appearance which further adds to the character that they bring to the game. It would have been nice to see more environments which would have added further variety, even if it was just different parts of the train each chapter. Although, not much happens that would cause performance issues, Subsurface Circular performs very well and I never encountered any issues on my play through.

The soundtrack was composed by Dan le Sac. Although the music is not entirely apparent in game, it has a very nice techno style which fits well with the mysterious world that Subsurface Circular is set in. The music not being apparent meant that it was not overpowering and helped me focus on the conversations and the story that was developing. Moreover, the beeps and boops that occur when establishing links and during conversations integrate with the HD rumble. This contributes to the futuristic sounds produced throughout the game and captures the universe the game fits into well.

Considering Subsurface Circular is titled as a “Short Story” leads me onto the game’s biggest drawback, how short the game unfortunately is. Even whilst taking your time, it will only last around 2½ hours which is fairly short. Additionally, there is very little replay value upon completing the game. You can replay the game with Developer Commentary which you unlock after one play through. This provides a nice insight into how the development of the game went and reasoning behind the inclusion of different design features. In addition, you unlock the ability to look at the art gallery, which features very nice artwork from the development of the game. Furthermore, in terms of replay value, you could exhaust each conversation selecting every other possible option that you hadn’t selected previously. This would be just to see how conversations would differ, but it does not have any effect on the overall story. Moreover, it would have been nice to see decisions have more of an impact like in the Telltale games, and/or multiple endings which would have helped the replay value a bit more.

Subsurface Circular is an intriguing game, one with a mysterious story that offers serious/funny discussion points. The game has translated very well to the Switch in terms of performance, and well implemented features including the HD Rumble, add further immersion to an already engaging game. Despite being very short and lacking in replay value, it comes recommended to those that like text-based adventure games and those looking for an engaging story. This is one memorable story that should keep you playing until its conclusion.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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